Tanya Luhrmann is a Watkins University Professor in the Anthropology Department at Stanford. Her work explores how cultural contexts shape the experience of mental distress, particularly voice-hearing and the symptoms associated with psychosis. She also turns the lens on the practice of Western psychiatry itself, investigating how the field represents the mind and how these representations influence our collective understanding of reality.
Luhrmann’s book When God Talks Back was New York Times’ Notable Book of the Year, and she has written numerous articles on psychosis, medical anthropology, and spiritual experiences. Recently, Our Most Troubling Madness: Schizophrenia and Culture was published by the University of California Press. Her newest book, How God Becomes Real: Kindling the Presence of Invisible Others, was published by Princeton in 2020.
Luhrmann describes herself as someone who is interested in different types of “realnesses.” Given that she grew up surrounded by different worldviews, it is not surprising that her work reflects this diversity of interests. It spreads across academic fields and geographical terrain – from anthropology to psychiatry on one side and Chicago to Chennai on the other. Throughout these writings, she has challenged many assertions of mainstream psychiatry, often to the annoyance of leading figures in the field.
In this interview, she talks about the damaging effects of a diagnostic identity and the often-unseen challenges that peer counselors can face. She also takes on big questions: What does it mean when a person with high scores on psychosis scales is functional in one culture but not in another? Are auditory hallucinations shaped by cultural experiences? Are they always a source of distress?
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